I am astounded; the government has called off this year’s ‘Victory Parade’ and no one is really talking about it. Why are we not talking about it? Why isn’t everyone talking about it? Why aren’t we all so very glad? In an interview with the Sunday Observer, our present Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena — why didn’t I even know his name until this interview? Why is that? — accepts a military parade is unnecessary, wasteful and inappropriate. He accepts it doesn’t feel right. Small steps, big meaning. He says it isn’t the right way to mark this day for the country as a whole. It isn’t right for everyone. He talks openly about mourning, about our collective need to mourn. He is saying we all need to mourn but maybe we mourn in different ways and one people’s way of mourning shouldn’t be imposed on another while that other cannot mourn. In a country where the Tamil communities in the North and North East were for so many years prohibited from this very cultural human right, he is talking about mourning. He talks openly about remembering the dead and the disappeared. The government is publicly accepting that there is such a thing as ‘the disappeared’.
Meanwhile, in an open letter to his former boss, Mangala Samaraweera has laid bare all — he accepts the allegations of war crimes against the former government are possibly true. He says the footage that the Channel 4 documentaries aired was authentic, and that they knew it even then.
In an interview with the New York Times some weeks ago, our president Maithripala Sirisena addressed the new Constitution for Sri Lanka being developed now. He is talking about devolution of power. He is talking about the Sinhalese giving up a little power to share it with the Tamils and other minorities. He is talking about true and just power-sharing. He is saying the Sinhalese majority have nothing to fear; the Tamils having more doesn’t mean we have less. Human rights and democracy isn’t a zero sum game, indeed the opposite is true. The more we give, the more we have. He is saying the oppression of some means, inevitably, the oppression of all; that without justice and true equality, no majority can ever really be happy. He is talking about the war not being the problem but a consequence of the bigger problem — Sinhalese domination in all power structures. He is talking about a new constitution which would fix that from the root, up. He is talking about the root of the problem, about cause and effect. He is saying it’s us. HHe keeps the air conditioning turned off in his office. He has a picture of Karl Marx hung on his wall! He is saying things no one in power in my whole lifetime has ever really said, not so openly. He is saying obvious things, but obvious things are sometimes radical to the ears. He too talks about mourning in a sense, about healing and the slow, gradual change that healing needs to be.
Every day, I hear about all the good people who are finally being heard, being taken seriously — all the good people who are the experts, the activists, the academics who have worked so hard to question our leaders and challenge our perspectives, who have tried so hard to force open our eyes to the possibility of inclusivity and equality. The people who, under the previous regime, had to shrink away into the shadows, into hiding, often publicly discredited and humiliated by intimidation. Our present leaders are not only not ignoring them, they are listening; they are thinking clearly about representation: they are putting women and members of minority communities at the tables, at the heads of the tables, and they are saying, ‘We all have something to learn from you. We are listening.’ These are the good people to whom our government is now looking, who the government is asking to lead the discussions and the action, all the good people appointed to so many advisory committees and task forces who are getting things done and encouraging us all to have important conversations: there’s the Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, the Task Force on the prevention of violence against women and girls, the team overlooking the Right to Information Act gets done, an initiative to draft a National Arts and Cultural policy, which we hope will ensure, beyond artist rights, cultural rights for all. Mourning our dead is a cultural right; and we should all have it. There is the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation which seems fiercely committed to the idea that the arts has a crucial role to play in healing, mourning and understanding each other. There is a move to set up a permanent Office on Missing Persons (I know there is a petition to have it named the Office on Missing Persons and Enforced Disappearances, which we are optimistic will be heard) — there they are again, accepting the reality of disappearances. Who are these people? Am I the only one astounded by the fact that our leaders are speaking of these things with seemingly no other agenda except, well, to speak of them?
Today on my newsfeed, amidst the terrible floods and landslides, people complain that the awful results of natural disasters are actually the result of bad governance and reveal an uncaring, under-prepared government. No. Let’s put aside the constant cynicism. If you like, let’s talk instead about climate change and how risk and vulnerability are structural; let’s talk about our impact on the planet; let’s talk about the first-world’s impact on the planet and how the third-world is so much more vulnerable to the consequences. Let’s talk about that thing for which we are all responsible.
But on an average day, why don’t we celebrate and support the good stuff more? Why do we only remember the names of the monsters but not the good, unassuming new leaders we seem to have? Why aren’t we paying more attention to what they are doing?
Don’t tell me that their goodness is only impressive because we were stuck with the worst of the worst for so long. That’s not even true. These aren’t signs of mere, minimum competence. We are seeing more than that. We are seeing something real. But we have to push them to more, we have to ask them for more thinking, more reflection. We have to ask for a true commitment to creating anti-racist structures and attitudes. We are seeing something good. But we have to ask for even better. I think these are people who care about the right things, the really important things. We have to care also. We have to care also so we can ask for more.
Why are we still so cynical? Our political cynicism is damning, and it is often lazy — sometimes I think it means we aren’t listening. We aren’t reading. We aren’t looking around us. Or worse, it means we don’t care enough about this stuff. At every moment like this, I am overcome by this thought: I fear that in the end, the majority of us didn’t incite a revolution at the polls last year because of Mahinda Rajapakse and his clan were vile racists who systematically deepened ethnic divides and strengthened racist structures which oppressed Tamil people so absolutely. We did it because of allegations of corruption and abuse of public funds, not because of the militarization of the North and North East. We did it because the cost of living had risen so much and we couldn’t bear the flagrant displays of obviously corrupt opulence coming from the Rajapakse family while we ‘struggled’, not because there are around 40,000 civilians unaccounted for after the end of the war in 2009, whose deaths the Sri Lankan Army was quite likely responsible for, with orders from the top. Not because of the killings and the abductions and the torture and the illegal incarcerations and the rape of Tamil civilians, academics, activists and journalists. Not because of the systematic racism and race-based violence at all levels; in communities, in prisons, on the streets, in their homes, that was normalized for us. Not because of the cultural colonization and the economic colonization and the clean, hostile take-over of land belonging to Tamils.
Our present leaders are saying we need to mourn. We need to mourn more, we need to mourn better. We, the Sinhalese, have a lot to mourn. We have to mourn everyone and everything we lost. But there are other things. We have to mourn everything we allowed our former leaders to do; all those times we didn’t raise our voices strongly enough when Tamils were being killed just a few hundred miles away from us. We have to mourn all the times we rejected our activists and journalists when they spoke about the horrors we couldn’t see ourselves; all the horrors being carried in the name of our freedom, our safety. We have to mourn for ourselves; for every ounce of guilt and shame we feel at every moment we do something to reinforce racism: every time we confess we cannot speak Tamil. Every time we confess to never have heard of that Tamil poet. Every time we are struck by our own ignorance when we are faced with vibrant Tamil academics who know so much more than we do; who open our eyes to a history we have never paid attention to. We have to mourn how little we know about the war and how it happened so differently to the Tamils than it did to us; we have to mourn how little we have tried to find out. We have to mourn that we are shocked when we now read that Tamils in the North and North East post-2009 had barely any basic rights; that they had no right to mobility, no right to seek justice, no right to even grieve for their dead. We have to mourn how little we know about how much land was stolen from Tamil people by our former leaders, through brute force and intimidation. We have to mourn that we supported the Good Market while it was still a weekly affair in Rajagiriya, not even knowing that a monument to the disappeared had stood there, and had been razed to the ground there. We have to mourn.
We should next ask that our present government gradually take down the several offensive monuments to the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, which were erected after the ‘victory’ in 2009, in places which saw the worst cruelty and tragedy. If they want monuments, let them commission our artists to work on monuments which commemorate the dead and disappeared sensitively and reflectively. If they want monuments to the Army — then let them build those, but not atop the dead, not atop the things that are more honest and revealing of us. We should next ask that our present government gradually publicly accept that for the Tamils in the North and North East, mourning their dead and commemorating the LTTE are sometimes one and the same, and stop safely toeing the line in this statement. Say this out loud. Accept what it means. See how it falls on our ears. Perhaps next to redesign the national flag (or think past a national flag altogether). Symbolic, yes, but symbols are powerful.
We have to mourn. We have a lot to mourn.